REVIEW: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

1 05 2017

Norman Lear is, to borrow a term used by the President to describe Frederick Douglass, being recognized more and more these days. But unlike the abolitionist hero, Lear is still alive! Luckily for us, his work and enormous contributions to shaping American society by revolutionizing the sitcom are receiving their proper due. Lear himself is not content to go gently into that good night, either; the nonagenarian just kicked off a podcast this month!

A few years ago, however, Lear penned a memoir, and documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady came along for the book tour. Their observations on the journey form the backbone of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” It’s definitely a puff piece, though the halo is dim enough that it falls short of hagiography. Their film lands somewhere in Sunday morning news magazine segment territory, just at a feature length, which is a fine place to reside.

Ewing and Grady assemble an impressive array of talking heads to interview, ranging from obvious contenders such as comedic peer Mel Brooks and famous showrunners like Lena Dunham and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) to some genuinely surprising faces like George Clooney. For those who want to understand Lear’s importance and don’t have the time to binge-watch “All in the Family,” this documentary will provide an important primer to his historical importance and continued relevance. Ewing and Grady aren’t pushing the documentary form like Lear stretched the TV sitcom, though that’s hardly an issue. B

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 19, 2013)

19 07 2013

Exporting RaymondIt’s all too easy to throw around the word universal; you can look and see I’m guilty of it myself.  While a nice idea, it is a little naive to assume that there can truly be an experience that unites the entire world.  It’s an especially tempting descriptor for comedies, which often play to broadly shared feelings to illicit the desired response.

But in my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Phil Rosenthal’s documentary “Exporting Raymond,” we get a hilarious crash-course in how great a cultural divide can be.  Rosenthal, the creator of the hit CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” takes us along for the ride as he advises Russian television personnel as they struggle to adapt his show for their market.  To his surprise, more has to be changed than just the language.

As creative staff and executives prepare “Voroniny” to hit the Russian small screen, Rosenthal finds himself explaining things about Ray Barone and his family that he took for granted as just being understood.  The entire way in which Americans enact concepts of family, gender, and power are foreign to the Russians.  Rosenthal finds himself in the precarious position of trying to maintain the integrity of “Everybody Loves Raymond” without setting it up for failure in the Russian marketplace.

For those like myself who found Ray’s antics quite relatable, “Exporting Raymond” is a gentle and well-meaning reminder that our response to his character is largely conditioned by the culture in which we watch him.  Rosenthal shows us how hard intercultural communication can be, but he ultimately demonstrates how valuable the additional understanding we gain really is.